Lost in Space

Lost in Space

Campuses find ways to escape the pinch of finite classroom space.

It's so minute in the overall picture: On average, classrooms represent just 5 percent of the space on campus, and that's excluding housing, according to Ira Fink, president of Ira Fink and Associates, a university planning consultant based in Berkeley, Calif. And yet 15 percent of the campus administrators from 200 institutions surveyed by Hillier in 2005 cited lack of classroom space as a major issue.

That's kind compared to what's probably being said underneath the breaths of officials and faculty at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill these days. Happily, the state passed a bond referendum a few years ago to pay to renovate many of the campus's general purpose classrooms. Unfortunately, the construction schedules mean those classrooms must come off line temporarily. "And that's become increasingly difficult because the university also has an ongoing drive to increase enrollment over the next 10 years," says Megan Keefe, section head of scheduling at UNC.

Less space and more students equal mounting headaches, no matter how the statistics fall.

The reasons behind the incredible shrinking space vary. From a 5,000-foot view, Tom Shaver, founder and CEO of scheduling software provider Ad Astra Information Systems, believes it's because too few university officials consider space management their growth capacity tool. More practically, they don't enforce the scheduling policies in place. "You have to build the policy, then build reports that can then enforce the policy, and you need to be diligent about checking up on adherence to the policy on a term-by-term basis," he says.

Francis Hayes, vice president at Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction, blames the spaces themselves, which were designed 10 to 15 years ago without building in flexibility. To add insult to injury, office space is encroaching on existing classrooms; Shaver's studies show the net amount of classroom space on North American campuses has decreased over the past 30 years, thanks to a need for private cubicles.

Plus, Shaver adds, "new construction dollars gravitate toward new workout facilities, libraries-stuff the presidents can give tours of." Planning for core academic space just isn't as exciting.

But it's not just a case of "so sad, too bad" for schedulers and students. The ramifications are reaching the highest levels as many funding sources for new construction projects are starting to require the campus to meet or exceed a base level of utilization first, warns Shaver. In other words, as Mother always said, "You have to clean your plate before you get seconds."

The good news? Conquering the space problem, consultants say, requires focusing on only two broad categories: logistics and politics.

Jim Prince, vice president of operations at Geneva College (Pa.), figured his problem was obvious. Thirty-four classrooms simply wouldn't handle the course demands for 2,000 students at this private, Christian institution. He turned to consultants at Performa Higher Education to prove him right. Instead, Performa's classroom utilization study determined that only 13 classrooms were used more than the 67 percent benchmark. He could alleviate much of the bottleneck simply by subdividing larger classrooms and opening class sections during lunch.

Stories like this reinforce the importance of good database tools for Michael Schley, CEO of FM:Systems, which produces workplace management software. "Most campuses that don't have good information systems are probably wasting space," he says. "You can't manage what you can't track."

A good information system offers a way to store CAD drawings, so users have a graphic representation of each building, and allows officials to enter details like its location, including adjacency relationships between buildings and entities like parking lots or athletic fields. It should also track space by category, subcategory, and user-defined codes, and store employee information for everyone who uses that space.

Office space is encroaching on existing classrooms; studies indicate that the net amount of campus classroom space has decreased over the past 30 years, thanks to a need for private cubicles.

With the right input, when a department head requests space, you can pull up a graphical report within seconds and see which spaces are vacant, how many square feet that space uses, and the occupancy levels it allows, explains Dave Levenstein, manager of business development at FAMIS Software, which provides products that help organizations maintain and operate facilities assets, manage space, and control capital projects. Officials at Stanford University (Calif.) have even gone wireless with their FAMIS system, the better for officials to walk the campus entering information on the spot.

Some systems, like those offered by Ad Astra, allow classroom utilization to be broken down into subsets of rooms, typically based on equipment type and room size. This way, if an official wants to compare how various departments use their high-tech classrooms offering 50 to 80 feet with space of similar size minus the bells and whistles, it's just a computer report away.

"Average really doesn't matter that much unless you're trying to go out for funding," Shaver says. "Average is just a statistical report across a group of rooms. What really matters is whether your rooms will support your strategic and academic missions." In other words, identify your most constrained rooms, and if it's a big percentage of your room inventory, you need to dig in and develop a strategy to relieve the bottleneck.

There are plenty of blueprints to choose from. Hayes is a fan of thinking outside the box, as Brown University officials recently did with the institution's life sciences laboratory. Originally the building was earmarked for office space, but "when push came to shove, they said, 'Maybe it would make sense to use it as a flexible lab swing space,' " Hayes explains. Sure, the decision meant spending money on mechanical space, plumbing, and HVAC systems upfront to accommodate what Hayes jokingly calls "that crazy idea," but amortized over 15 to 20 years, the cost drops considerably.

Hayes has also witnessed campus officials cut down the overall size of their labs, taking advantage of technology options to do more teaching in less space. After all, if you can squeeze in a net six additional lab spaces across 10,000 square feet, the school-and its students-come out ahead.

One of the first space-freeing moves Hayes made at Harvard was to ship administrative space functions that were not directly related to the university's pedagogy off campus. (His colleagues at Brown, he notes, pulled the same strings.) In his estimation, holing up elsewhere in town doesn't greatly impact efficiency when you're the Finance department, Human Resources, External Relations, an alumni organization, or the fundraising team.

Shaver's approach may sound like heresy to some: Don't force folks to use less popular space; instead, find more effective ways to use the good classrooms. It goes back to his message of scrapping average space utilization across the entire inventory as a measuring tool. "There's typically a reason some rooms are poorly used," he notes. "It's very difficult to solve a problem by attacking a statistical result."

Yet Boise State University (Idaho) is finding success doing just that. In the past six years, enrollment has grown by 2 percent while more classroom space was converted to research labs and faculty offices. So Kim Asbury, coordinator of class development, turned to CollegeNET's X25 space analysis software to help her gather data on individual room and seat utilization across the campus. The provost and registrar used the report to make personal visits to the underused spaces, where they could see for themselves how poorly maintained many of the empty rooms were. "No one wanted them because they didn't have anything high tech in them," she reports.

Meanwhile, Asbury was running ragged trying to negotiate deals with department heads for rooms that suited them. The answer was clear: They invested an initial $150,000 to spiff up six old-fashioned classrooms with everything from standardized armed tablet chairs to new carpeting that replaced tile, and, of course, multimedia tools. "Before you would have a brown chair, an orange chair, a yellow chair in the room. People dragged them from other rooms to make sure they had enough, so we had to make it more attractive," she says. "There's more of a collegial feeling to them, and the students are more appreciative."

So is the faculty. The improvements drew enough attention that departments are begging to get in line for similar fix-ups in their proprietary spaces. Although they still need to budget for more general purpose spaces, Asbury encourages such requests. Still, there is a small catch to her generosity. "We'll be glad to make over the rooms if they'll put them in the general pool," is her spiel. In other words, they would still have use of the rooms but may have to share with other departments, at Asbury's discretion. To date she's had few takers, "but they're starting to think about it. I believe the buy-in is coming, but it takes a little while."

Administrators who prefer to make Shaver's path of building a better academic scheduling policy their priority can take a few pointers from Ira Fink. Classes that start or end at a variety of times may accommodate the faculty's needs, but this throws a monkey wrench into optimum space management, since it leaves some rooms sitting empty when they shouldn't be. UNC can vouch for this plan; the institution realized a big impact on space availability when the provost put a stop to departments scheduling their 90-minute Tuesday and Thursday classes on Monday and Wednesday, when class periods are supposed to last just 50 minutes.

As for Prince, he, too, implemented a more uniform scheduling policy, limited faculty from choosing only the best rooms, subdivided some larger classrooms to accommodate smaller class needs, and expanded class periods over the lunch hour.

"A good 75 to 80 percent of the folks out there today come to the decision they really don't need to acquire more space. It's just a matter of reshuffling the deck they have," Levenstein sums up.

But Geneva College couldn't close the book after determining how to save space. "The biggest challenge was convincing the faculty that the study was credible," Prince says. "There were also complaints that faculty had to teach over the lunch period; however, that settled down after time. What remains a frustration is that faculty like to pick and choose optimal space. Our registrar attempts to control this, but we find that sometimes faculty will move their classes to a 'better' location."

Welcome to the wonderful world of space management, part two, where institutional politics comes into play.

The corporate world has been in the process of actively managing tight space for the last decade, but the academic world has just begun to explore the ins and outs. There's no doubt about it in Schley's mind: The old way-which he calls "the feudal model"-is where each department has its own space and other departments are kindly invited to work out their own problems; this falls in the "out" category. A federated model where universities own and actively manage the space is the evolving attitude.

"You have two choices. You can try to be more collaborative in the way different colleges and departments interact, or you can keep acquiring more space through building or leasing," Schley poses. "Clearly, the latter option is more costly. So it's in the university's best interest to find ways for people to work together."

Harvard and Brown freed up classroom space by shipping administrative functions not directly related to the university's pedagogy off campus.

And that puts higher education institutions like Middle Tennessee State University in a bit of a bind. In their tradition, 100 percent of the classrooms are assigned to academic departments, so the registrar's office technically controls none of them. "We do a little dance," admits K. Watson Harris, director of academic technology planning and projects. "We recognize that for the departments to perceive that they have ownership is really first priority. But we do have to meet university goals," she says.

This practice came to a head in 2000, when a former provost reported to MTSU's president that they were plumb out of space and couldn't offer any more freshman classes. So the president took a stroll between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and found-surprise!-empty classrooms that departments had dibs on but weren't using. Officials formed a large Classroom and Laboratory Utilization and Effectiveness Committee (CLUE) with representatives from each college, plus department chairs, deans, the student government association, and the faculty senate, and charged the body with developing scheduling standards.

In some ways, the committee was asked to reinvent the wheel. The Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission had standards, but the university was not aware of them at the time, Harris confesses. They proved to be instrumental in getting the classrooms classified as unrestricted and decentralize some of the space decisions. Today, the deans hold more decision power, with the provost's office serving as the information source.

In this new order, departments must fully use the spaces allotted to them, which includes letting neighbors borrow a classroom or two when possible. Those who don't find themselves hearing "no" a lot when they need financial assistance or technology for that space. "Instead of saying to a department chair, 'You have to share,' we said, 'You can keep your space restricted if you reach out and fully use it through a partnership with another department or within the college.' Then it won't go to an automatic scheduler and you won't get an unknown in there," Harris reports.

The plan wins applause from Francis Hayes, who contends that the No. 1 political mistake is not involving the people who use the spaces soon enough in the game. In any case, he advises polishing up your sales and marketing skills.

For instance, Hayes treasures a letter he received written by the head of the percussion department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, oohing and ahhing over the new space Shawmut helped prepare for his classes. "But if I'd said he had to move from the fourth floor overlooking the prestigious corner of Boylston Street to a basement before he saw the space and its amenities, the first reaction would be, 'What in the hell are they doing to me?'" Hayes explains. "You always get pushback when you don't have good transparency about one, the need, and two, the benefits."

UNC officials saw far fewer tempers flare over their policy changes than they anticipated; Keefe chalks it up in large part because the memo came from the provost. Sure, they have the cranes and framing crews to visually remind them of the rewards of sacrifice-but when the renovation dust clears, the scheduling policies will remain intact. By then, time and habit will be on their side.

"We are overcoming almost 100 years of tradition. It's a cultural change, so you have to be slow and gentle," says MTSU's Harris. She emphasizes that their departments don't lose first priority when they unrestrict their spaces; they merely let the rest of the campus use it when they're not. If faculty fear tampering, her office buys the locks needed to keep outsiders from rifling through cabinets. She'll spring for computer programs to protect software. She reminds them she can use outside funds to pay for broken equipment-"but these funds are often insufficient to cover all classroom issues, so we resolve the needs in the standard access, general purpose classrooms first," she adds.

(Note to the dean: Unrestricting space pays real dollars.)

Since 2002, MTSU has managed to coax 25 percent more unrestricted classroom space than it started with that year. Harris expects that number to increase another 25 percent for a total of 75 percent under her control by the middle of 2007.

Shaver doesn't see a day when buildings remove their department names from the doorways altogether, but with space bottlenecks, "you either get control of it or it gets control of you," he says. Indeed, "we aren't trying to punish the departments," Keffe echoes. "We are doing the best we can for everybody with the limited resources that we have available."

Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based freelance writer who frequently covers facilities issues.


Advertisement